Like all of us who go through this life, the late Selva Lewis Burdette, Jr., had issues. Maybe the first was that no one could ever seem to figure out whether he was Lou Burdette or Lew Burdette. About half the time the former Milwaukee Braves pitcher was “Lou” and half the time he was “Lew.”
On the other hand, Jim Brosnan called him ”Squirrel” in Pennant Race and hinted rather strongly that he threw a spitter. And that was issue number two… whenever a list of modern-day spitballers is compiled, Burdette is usually right up there with Gaylord Perry and Preacher Roe.
Then there was the matter of his hometown. The only major leaguer ever born in Nitro, West Virginia, Burdette undoubtedly fielded numerous comments over the years asking if Nitro was one of the West Virginia Twin Cities, the other naturally being Glycerin. (Well, it is coal country.)
Burdette’s biggest issue though was that he spent a good portion of his career on the same pitching staff with one Warren Spahn, who was only the greatest pitcher of his generation, or at least the era between 1947 and 1963. Hence, many have forgotten that Burdette was a pretty fair major league pitcher over 18 seasons, and a 200 game winner. Was it his fault to inevitably be compared to a 363 game winner?
ERA ERA+ BI
31 3067 628
Maybe not a great pitcher, but a very good one, especially when he won 20 and 21 games in 1958 and 1959. In fact, although he wasn’t part of as mnemonic a duo as Spahn and Johnny Sain, the truth is Spahn and Burdette (“and hope it gets wet”?) were a better one-two punch on the mound during Milwaukee’s yet-to-be-repeated heyday in major league baseball… 1953 to 1961… a period wherein Burdette won 15, 15, 13, 19, 17, 20, 21, 19 and 18 games. A total of 157 wins, or more than 17 a year. Using Similarity Scores, we find that Burdette was a close match to three other pitchers who could reasonably also be tagged as very good -- Charley Root, Jesse Haines and Freddie Fitzsimmons. Maybe not a Hall of Famer (though Haines is one), but a good pitcher.
And, as was universally pointed out in the wake of his recent death at the age of 80, he did have one shining moment in baseball… an accomplishment that will always be tied to his name. He may not be a Hall of Famer, but he does have his claim to fame. On October 3, October 7 and October 10, 1957, Lew Burdette defeated the New York Yankees, 4-2, 1-0 and 5-0, thus becoming only the 10th pitcher in the 20th Century to win three games in a single World Series. After taking his normal turn, following Spahn of course, in games two and five, Burdette was pressed into service on two days rest in game seven, because Spahn was sick. He shut out the Bronx Bombers on seven hits, and thus achieved an at-the-time unique feat that would only be matched in 2001 by Randy Johnson – posting three series wins against the Yankees.
Burdette’s 1957 World Series was most likely even more satisfying to the 30 year old righthander because he had originally come up with the Yankees, pitching in a couple of games at the end of the 1950 season before being traded to the Braves for, guess who, Johnny Sain. Burdette would stay in Milwaukee until June 1963, when he was traded to the Cardinals, beginning the nomadic portion of his career that saw him bounce around to the Cubs (1964), Phillies (1965… when he and Robin Roberts were almost traded for each other… Burdette from the Phillies to the Orioles in return for Roberts), and finally the Angels (1966 and 1967).
By the time he came to the end of the road, Burdette was almost 41 years old, the second-oldest player in the American League (behind Hoyt Wilhelm). Without question, Burdette’s retirement also evoked memories of the World Series then 10 years past. However, what probably wasn’t noted at the time was that Burdette was also part of one of those unfathomable trends that make baseball such a great game. No, it wasn’t the rarity of the three-wins-in-a-series club, although only Bob Gibson, Mickey Lolich and Johnson have done it in the 48 World Series since then. What makes Burdette’s accomplishment so interesting is that, out of the 13 men who have won three games in a 20th or 21st Century World Series, only three of them were the unquestioned aces of their respective teams. Yes, just like Lew Burdette to Warren Spahn, nine of the other dozen three-games-in-the-series winners were second bananas in one measure or another.
Start in 1903, when both teams in the best-of-nine Series, the Boston Americans (Bill Dinneen, 3-1) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (Deacon Phillippe, 3-2), had three-game winners. But, Cy Young was also on that Boston staff and the Pirates’ best pitcher in 1903 was Sam Leever, who went 25-7 with a 2.06 ERA. (Phillippe was 25-9 with a 2.43 ERA.)
After one of the exceptions, Christy Mathewson, threw three shut outs at the Athletics in 1905, the next time someone won three was 1909, when another Pirate, rookie Babe Adams, shut down the Tigers. He’d gone just 12-3 in the regular season, when Howie Camnitz was 25-6. However, Howie went 0-1 in the Series, and Adams, 3-0. The very next year saw a different sort of anomaly. Colby Jack Coombs of the A’s put the Cubs away three times after a regular season that saw him win 31 games. Coombs was indeed the big winner for Connie Mack in 1910. However, that same A’s pitching staff also had Eddie Plank and Charles Albert Bender, and they’re both in the Hall of Fame. Coombs, due partly to illness and injury, missed the Hall by a wide margin… therefore, though he may have been Mack’s best in 1910, he was only the Athletics’ third best from a career standpoint. A little different situation occurred two years after that, when Smoky Joe Wood rode his 34-5 regular season to a 3-1 record in the Series against the Giants. Wood was certainly the best hurler on that Red Sox staff, but it would be a short reign. Like Coombs, injury greatly curtailed the rest of Wood’s career. (And, like Coombs, he also played the outfield when he couldn’t pitch.) However, even given his shortened career, Wood was still the best pitcher, in terms of seasonal (or peak) and career value on the largely undistinguished 1912 Red Sox staff, so he’s the second exception.
In 1917, it happened again. While it may seem that Hall of Famer Red Faber was the ace of the White Sox staff that year, the truth is that future Black Sox Eddie Cicotte was. Cicotte had gone 28-12 with a 1.53 ERA in 1917, Faber 16-13 with a 1.92 ERA. In fact, you can also make a case that Cicotte was just a better pitcher, period. When he was kicked out after 1920 – still near the top of his game (21-10, 3.26 ERA that year) – Cicotte had a career winning percentage of .585 and an Adjusted ERA of 123. Faber finished with a .544 winning percentage and a 119 Adjusted ERA. (They were teammates for nine years.) Still, Faber went 3-1 in the ’17 Series and Cicotte went 1-1.
Three years later, another pitcher had a fluky season that helped carry a team to a world championship. Jim Bagby was the Cleveland Indians’ big winner in 1920, but his 31 wins represented almost one-quarter of his career total of 127. In the World Series, Stan Coveleski (24 wins in the regular season), who would eventually end up in the Hall of Fame, re-asserted his dominance, going 3-0 with an 0.67 ERA against the Dodgers.
It would be 26 years before another pitcher won three series games, and, once again, he wasn’t the ace. During the 1946 season, Howie Pollet went 21-10 with a 2.10 ERA for the Cardinals. Harry Brecheen was just 15-15 with a 2.49 ERA. You know what happened next. Brecheen went 3-0 with an 0.45 ERA against the Red Sox in the Series, and Pollet was 0-1 with a 3.48 ERA.
Skipping ahead to 1967, but sticking with the Cardinals, everyone knows the Redbirds’ ace in those years was Bob Gibson. Except in 1967. Roberto Clemente was unkind enough to break Gibson’s leg with a line drive in mid-season, and Gibby went just 13-7 with a 2.98 ERA as a result. Now Dick Hughes, he went 16-6 with a 2.67 ERA during the ’67 season. That certainly doesn’t make him a better pitcher than Gibson, who went 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA in the Series, but, he did have more wins and a better ERA in the 1967 regular season. Of course, it was Gibson, not Hughes, who was chosen to start three times against the Red Sox.
The next year, the table was turned on Gibson and the Cardinals. Although Gibby set a non-Deadball Era ERA record of 1.12 during the regular season, he was beaten going for his third win in game seven of the Series. Not by Tigers’ ace Denny McLain, but, to the everlasting chagrin of Cardinal fans, by second banana Mickey Lolich. McLain, you will recall, had just gone 31-6 in the regular season. But it was Lolich (17-9 in ’68) who won three games with a 1.67 ERA in the Series. Although certain excesses on Mr. McLain’s part would ultimately lead to Lolich having a far better career, anyone who suggested prior to the 1968 Series that Lolich was the better pitcher would have been locked up for their own good.
Although it seemed that the three game Series winner had become extinct after 1968, the Arizona Diamondbacks brought their number one ace, Randy Johnson, out of the bullpen in game seven of the 2001 World Series against the Yankees to relieve their number two ace, Curt Schilling. The D’Backs came back to win the game, and Johnson had his third win of the Series. Although Schilling is the best clutch pitcher of his generation, few would argue that 2001 Cy Young Award winner Johnson wasn’t the D’Backs’ best pitcher during the season. So Johnson (who also has 73 more career wins than Schilling) was the third exception to the Second Banana Theory.
Still, it’s a remarkable trend encompassing several combinations of; aces having off years (e.g., Gibson), aces not shining in the World Series (e.g., McLain), and primarily good pitchers taking advantage of an opportunity and becoming great pitchers for either a week or a season (e.g., Adams, Coombs, Bagby, Brecheen, Burdette, Lolich.) Such is the magic of baseball that you never know what’s going to happen in the World Series, and such is the legacy of Lew Burdette.
A member of the Society for American Baseball Research, John Shiffert’s background includes serving as a sportswriter, as sports information director for Earlham College and Drexel University, and as publisher of the Philadelphia Baseball File. He's been director of University Relations at Clayton State University since August 1995.